When I was expecting my daughter I vividly remember bursting into tears in the middle of a supermarket. Partly this mild hysteria was due to my pregnancy hormones but I also felt overwhelmed by all the conflicting advice and seemingly dire warnings around pregnancy and food. It seemed as if the advice kept changing and I was so confused that I could not think of anything I wanted to eat.
I have been thinking about this recently because so many of my patients are newly pregnant and have been asking me for help with their diet.
It is important to consult your OB/GYN about this topic and my advice is not meant to take the place of your doctor’s suggestions. However here is what I tell my patients about what to eat and what not to eat when they are pregnant.
What to Eat
If you are pregnant, you should be taking a daily prenatal vitamin containing at least 400mcgs of folic acid to prevent birth defects of the brain and spinal cord
Try to achieve a healthy balance of nourishing foods including:
- Lean meat or fish – see below for advice about which fish to eat.
- Fresh fruit and vegetables, especially citrus fruits and dark green vegetables, which contain folic acid.
- Carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, grains, potatoes, and cereals.
- Milk and other dairy products such as yogurt and cheese. See below for more advice about which cheeses to avoid.
- Plenty of water, as pregnancy can cause dehydration easily.
In Chinese medicine, we believe that food contains qi or energy and that foods that have been heavily processed in a factory have been deprived of much of that energy and so are less nutritious. Consequently, I ask my patients to eat as many whole unprocessed foods as possible and not rely too heavily on frozen meals and pre-packaged snacks. However, it is important to remember that not all food preparation methods are detrimental. Pasteurization makes foods much safer and at The Yinova Center, we caution our patients against drinking unpasteurized milk or juice during their pregnancy because of the risks of contamination.
What Not to Eat
- Fish is one of those controversial foods about which there is conflicting advice. On the one hand, pregnant people have been told to avoid it because of mercury toxicity and on the other hand, a recent article in the British medical journal The Lancet found that the children of pregnant people who had eaten lots of fish during their pregnancy had better communication and social skills. You can find a BBC report about this here and here. Confusion like this is what reduced me to a sobbing mess during my own pregnancy. Here is what we tell our own expectant moms at The Yinova Center.
- There is no doubt that mercury toxicity in fish is a serious problem. Scientists have found that mercury can be transferred to the growing fetus and cause health problems. Fish with the highest concentrations of mercury are swordfish, shark, marlin, king mackerel, and tilefish and these should be avoided by pregnant people. Tuna can be high in mercury but is also are a good source of nutrition. If you decide to eat tuna while you’re pregnant, eat one serving or less a week. One serving is a 6 oz fillet or one can.
- Fish that are low in mercury are shrimp, salmon, pollock, and catfish and you can safely eat 2 servings or 12 oz of these fish a week. This way you will get the health benefits of eating fish without exposing your baby to too much mercury. Incidentally, the scientists believe that the reason that fish seems to improve your baby’s intelligence is that it contains omega 3 fatty acids which are important in brain development. Because of this at The Yinova Center, we tell Mom’s who are worried to add a high-quality omega 3 supplement to their diet. The one we prefer is called Orthomolecular Fish Oil and we have plenty in stock should you need to buy some.
- In spite of the controversy about whether to eat fish or not all pregnant people should avoid raw fish, especially raw shellfish because of the risk of parasites. You should also avoid smoked seafood unless it has been cooked for instance having smoked salmon in a creamy pasta sauce would be fine. Canned smoked fish is also OK.
- Don’t eat liver and liver products while pregnant, as they contain high levels of vitamin A, which can lead to birth defects.
- Don’t eat hot dogs, deli meats (such as turkey, ham, salami, and bologna), refrigerated pates or meat spreads because of the risk of listeria which can cause miscarriage or premature birth. Canned pates are safe, however. For the same reason, you should avoid soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk. Examples are brie, camembert, feta, Roquefort, queso blanco, and queso fresco. There is also a slight risk of listeria from the kind of ready-to-eat pre-packaged meals you can get from the supermarket so these should be served piping hot to make sure all the bugs have been killed.
- All meat, poultry, and seafood should be cooked thoroughly all to kill bacteria. Likewise, you should wash all fruit and vegetables before eating, to avoid infection with toxoplasmosis, an organism that can affect your baby. It’s best to avoid sprouted grains and beans such as alfalfa, clover, and mung bean sprouts.
- Don’t eat raw or lightly cooked eggs because of the risk of salmonella.
- Unless prescribed by a qualified herbalist you should avoid herbal supplements and teas.
- Limit coffee to one cup a day and avoid alcohol altogether.